Okay, look:

It is very easy to make fun of people who don't speak or write English with 100 per cent accuracy (whatever the hell that is). So Tin Pei Ling, a brand-new candidate with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) for the upcoming Singapore general elections, gets flak for these words:
Impact of this has been reinforced several times by residents during block visits these few weeks.
Getting flak for this is fine if she were running in an election to be Supreme Copyeditor of Singapore, Number One English Teacher of Singapore, or Clearest Communicator in English in Singapore. God knows I would circle the sentence sternly with a red pen and make sarcastic annotations if, as a teacher or an editor, I came across it in my work.

But she's not. She's running for political office.

Lots of people speak imperfect English, in Singapore and beyond. If we're going to insist on all our political candidates speaking impeccable English, then let's start going after every single one of them: male, female, PAP, not-PAP.

If not, then leave language issues well the hell alone. Or if you're going to invoke them, at least admit your own class and cultural prejudices about why you think a person ought to write or speak English in a certain way. (Yes, Ng Tze Yong who writes that Workers Party candidate "even speaks like a Chinese foreign worker", I'm looking at you.)

* * *

On a related note, this morning I came across "Why Singaporeans are outraged by the idea of Tin Pei Ling in a GRC, but not MG Chan Chun Sing", in which Visakan Veerasamy recounts a conversation with a friend who said:
"I think that people are spending far too much time scrutinising Tin Pei Ling and not enough time on other candidates [...] Singaporeans should instead direct their attention to the candidates who are obviously being earmarked for big things in the future e.g. MG [Major-General] Chan Chun Sing,* BG [Brigadier-General] Tan Chuan Jin and the MAS [Monetary Authority of Singapore] head Heng Swee Keat."
Or as @illyrica tweeted succinctly last week:
Sexism-driven focus on Tin Pei Ling misses the point. Every single candidate should be standing in an SMC [single member constituency].
(For more on the "sexism-driven focus", see Jessica Cheam's "Fairer sex, fair game?" [via @illyrica].**)

To wit:
  • Some people are picking on Tin Pei Ling (or any other single candidate) and ignoring all other candidates. I think that is revealing of what their focus is, sexist or not.
  • Some people are arguing that Tin is unqualified to be a political candidate. To which I say, what do you mean by "qualified" and how do other candidates (PAP or not-PAP) measure up to those standards? Following Visakan's friend's point quoted above, are army officers, government scholars*** and senior civil servants any more "qualified"?
  • If people object to the fact that the group representation constituency (GRC) system allows brand-new political candidates to "ride into Parliament on the back" of existing parliamentarians (in the words of Visakan's friend), then the issue is not about Tin Pei Ling but the political infrastructure that has been set up by the ruling PAP government, and should be examined as such (see for instance "Papsicles 1" by Yawning Bread, in which he highlights two PAP parliamentarians who will be leaving politics "without ever having to face a contest at an election.").
To pursue Visakan's friend's point further, if Tin or any candidate becomes the lightning rod (no pun intended****) for supposedly anti-PAP criticism, it allows other candidates (PAP or not-PAP) who are not-Tin to slide by without comment or scrutiny. If Tin is singled out as a woman, it makes it easier for candidates who appear to lack "womanly qualities" to slide by (moreover, without a discussion of what "womanly qualities" are and whether they are "womanly" and/or a reason to dismiss a candidate).

Does any of this make for a healthier, more principled level of discussion about politics in Singapore?

* Full disclosure: Chuan Jin is my friend's brother and slated to run in my constituency, Marine Parade GRC. I believe the last time I saw him was close to 20 years ago at their home. I believe the only thing I've ever said to him was, "Hello."

** Full disclosure part 2: I taught Jessica when she was doing her 'A' Levels some years ago. We're still in touch, but I had nothing to do with the article she wrote.

*** I haven't had the time to examine this thoroughly, but my perception is that when a former recipient of a government scholarship is
still employed by the government, e.g. Chan Chun Sing and Tan Chuan Jin, the press refers to him/her as a "government scholar". If they are no longer working for the government, although they have fulfilled their scholarship obligations (as I have), they are referred to in the press as "former government scholars". I hope I'm mistaken --- am I?

**** The PAP logo includes a symbol of a lightning rod.



At 4/17/2011 11:20 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe it could be another of life's wonderful miracles that Tin is the wife of the chief secretary of the PM!

I don't think this uproar is rooted in sexism. Eunice Olsen was an ok ncmp. Sylvia is leading the largest opposition party, and nobody ever raised a stink about that.

At 4/18/2011 12:21 pm , Anonymous Brandon Ngo said...

We need more educated commentators like you in the political sphere instead of the biased, poorly written and tabloid like websites like The Online Citizen and Temasek Review. TOC was good until recently, where the quality of articles just went down the drain.

It makes me wonder how good our education has been.

At 4/19/2011 5:10 am , Blogger Tym said...

@Anonymous > I disagree, but because I'm currently swamped with deadlines, I don't have the time to get into an extended discussion about this point here.

Other than the Jessica Cheam piece linked above, I will mention a few other pieces (not necessarily related to Singapore or Tin) that inform my understanding, and leave it at that. If I muster up time and energy to write a longer exegesis of the matter, I will.

""Can't be tamed: A manifesto", Molly Lambert

"'A woman schlemiel'", Farmer Plant'Alot

And a few excerpts from @illyrica:

"Tin is no more vacuous than many other PAP candidates, just as Palin is not an outlier in Republican ignorance & hatefulness"
Source: http://twitter.com/#!/illyrica/status/53481810302210048

"Tin PL is compared to Palin: misogynist shorthand drawing on view of women as unfit for office to epitomise party shortcomings"
Source: http://twitter.com/#!/illyrica/status/53481424795336705

"In reality, Tin Pei Ling is no more platitudinously policy-free than many other PAP candidates and MPs, just as Sarah Palin is not an outlier in terms of Republican ignorance and hatefulness.
They are not exceptional. They are par for the course.
But they are also convenient opportunities for those who enjoy expressing contempt towards women. They make particular woman politicians into stand-in's for everything that is believed to be wrong about their political tribes, while ignoring the vast majority of male politicians who are equally problematic.
... the appropriate comparison is not to more competent women but to equally incompetent men.
Source: Facebook Note by @illyrica, quoted with her permission

@Brandon > Don't think it's "education" that is the issue per se, but as mentioned above, I don't have the time to get into it and will leave the issue there for now.

At 4/20/2011 5:45 am , Blogger Tym said...

Adding a newly published link for my ref: "'Bitches in heat' & other gendered insults", by Lisa Li, published by AWARE on its website.

At 4/21/2011 4:38 am , Anonymous Magda Anne said...

Following you over from Twitter, Tym (and thanks for the RT!),


Misogyny doesn’t mean opposition to all office-holders who identify as women! The rhetoric about Tin Pei Ling has (i) infantilised her (referring to her as a ‘girl’ or ‘xiao mei mei’, for example), continuing the tradition of figuring adult women as childlike or immature; (ii) sexualised her through unnecessary and gratuitous commentary on her physical appearance; (iii) contained the language of sexual violence, a characteristic of rape culture which is typically directed at people who ID or are read as female or non-binary; and (iv) used insinuations such as ‘gold-digger’ which are, again, traditionally gendered slurs in keeping with an understanding of women as playing a primarily domestic role (and hence needing to secure wealthy marriages and being dependent on their menfolk’s position rather than their own agency).

This does not mean women cannot ever be criticised, but it means that criticism has to be fair and premised on their politics, her policies, her viewpoints, and their soundness and value. Not based on bigoted language and dangerous assumptions that target their gender identity. Misogyny doesn’t have to be explicit. As we’ve seen, it can be insidious – but no less disgusting and harmful for that.


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